The A to Z of South African culture


South Africa is more than a cultural melting pot, it’s a big warm potjie of culture, full of different ingredients and yummy surprises, and developing its rich flavour over centuries. Get a taste of cultural alphabet soup from archaeology to Zulu, with a dash of Corne, jukskei, kwaito and quagga on the way.

Brand South Africa reporter

A is for Archaeology

Mapungubwe in Limpopo is one of the richest archaeological sites in Africa. A Shona capital inhabited between 1200 and 1650, the city was a centre for the trade in gold and ivory with the Islamic areas of the East African coast, India and China’s Song Dynasty. The Iron Age site, discovered in 1932 but hidden from public attention until only recently, has been declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

B is for Battles

Two globally important wars took place on South African soil in the 19th and early 20th centuries: the Anglo Boer War and the Anglo Zulu War. In both, small indigenous populations fiercely opposed the heavy might of the British Empire, winning important battles before the vast imperial military machine brought them to submission.

In the Anglo Zulu War, Zulu impis armed only with spears famously took on and trounced British forces armed with the most modern firepower of the time. The British were only able to defeat King Cetshwayo kaMpande’s nation after British troops were rushed to South Africa from around the Empire.

The Anglo Boer War is considered the world’s first modern war. Guerrilla tactics, camouflage uniforms, concentration camps and attacks on civilian targets, all the ugly signatures of 20th century warfare, were first used in that campaign. The war killed 22 000 British soldiers, 7 000 Boers, 24 000 black men, women and children, and 22 000 white women and children, many of whom died in almost 200 concentration camps.

C is for Corne and Twakkie

“So to all you golden kids out there who always believed in the Dream and shared in the Love, we just want to say: Come on! Believe it! Thanks.”

Meet Corne and Twakkie, comedians and stars of The Most Amazing Show (T*M*A*S). If you’re not South African, you’ll probably find them scary. If you are you’ll find them scary anyway, but you’ll laugh a lot too. As they would say, Corne and Twakkie are totally not kak.

They’re like a bad seventies flashback: mullets, insane facial hair, tight shiny shorts last worn on a high school hockey pitch in 1974, and wonderfully mangled SA English.

According to their website, Corne – the Love Captain – is 6ft 4in (23in x 4in), “the fabulous host of The Most Amazing Show and part-time healer at the Dai Maharaj Centre for Healing through Eastern Eroticism.”

His co-host Twakkie is 4ft 6in, and has 84 broken bones and eight metal plates. “He made a name for himself as a stuntman in the golden decade of the 1980s and still struggles to cope with the unbearable stress of stardom.”

D is for Dance

In one field especially, the new freedoms of post-apartheid South Africa have brought new life – dance has became a prime means of artistic expression, with dance companies expanding and exploring new territory.

Music and dance are pulling in new audiences and a number of home-grown productions, particularly those aimed at the popular market, are wowing audiences both at home and abroad.

Among these are entrepreneurial producer Richard Loring’s African Footprint, which performed in London at the 2000 Royal Variety show, the musical Umoja, which has toured the world to huge critical acclaim, and the drumming feast Drumstruck, which has taken New York by storm.

E is for Earth

The rock formations around Barberton in Mpumalanga and Mapungubwe in Limpopo were formed in the earth’s kindergarten period, dating back billions of years. The Magaliesberg is said to be the oldest mountain range on earth. The magnificent Drakensberg range of mountains, which runs the length of the country, has been named a Unesco World Heritage site.

And then there’s the Vredefort Dome. Two billion years ago a meteorite bigger than Table Mountain hit the earth 100km southwest of Johannesburg, causing a 1 000-megaton blast that vaporised 70 cubic kilometres of rock and may have changed the earth’s climate to make multicellular life possible.

The resulting crater, known as the Vredefort Dome, is the oldest and largest clearly visible meteorite impact site in the world. Although now considerably eroded, the original crater was probably 250 to 300 kilometres in diameter. The Vredefort Dome is also a Unesco World Heritage site.

F is for Festivals

South Africa has a celebration for every event, place, art form, food, drink and agricultural commodity. There’s the Ficksburg Cherry Festival, the National Arts Festival, countless mud-and-dust music festivals, hundreds of mud-and-manure farm shows, the Lambert’s Bay Kreeffees (crayfish festival), Hantam Vleisfees (meat festival) and more.

The Prickly Pear Festival in Uitenhage offers traditional food such as potjiekos, home-made jam, braais and bunnychow. The Philippolis Witblits Festival celebrates a proud local tradition – witblits (Afrikaans for “white lightning”) is South African moonshine.

And every year, southern right whales travel thousands of miles to the Cape south coast to mate and calve in the bays. To celebrate the season the villagers of Hermanus put on a major festival which includes the best land-based whale watching in the world.

G is for Goldblatt

South African photographer David Goldblatt has documented his country for over 50 years, “exploring with a critical view the context in which evolve both the life of its people and the construction of its landscape,” according to the Hasselblad Foundation says.

In early 2006 he was named the recipient of the 2006 Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography, widely regarded as the most important photographic prize in the world.

His photographs have been exhibited in Europe, the US, Australia and South Africa, and form part of collections in world-class museums such as the South African National Gallery, the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the New York Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona.

H is for Handicrafts

No doubt about it – South Africans are a crafty bunch. The country’s people produce a remarkable range of arts and crafts, working from the pavements and markets of the big cities to deep rural enclaves, with every possible form of traditional artwork – and then some.

The country has a wide range of craftwork styles: tribal designs, Afro-French wirework, wood carvings, world-class pottery and bronze casting, stained glass, basket weaving, clay and stone sculpting, paper from elephant dung and ornaments made from waste.

I is for Indigenous Art

The massive Drakensberg range of mountains is the world’s largest art gallery – indoors or out – and a monument to the San Bushmen hunter-gatherers who lived there from the Stone Age until the late 19th century.

Living in the sandstone caves and rock shelters of the Drakensberg’s valleys, the San made paintings Unesco describes as “world famous and widely considered one of the supreme achievements of humankind . outstanding in quality and diversity of subject and in their depiction of animals and human beings . which throws much light on their way of life and their beliefs.”

In 2000 Unesco named the Drakensberg as a World Heritage site, for both its natural beauty and the unique cultural heritage of the mountains’ rich store of San art.

“The rock art of the Drakensberg is the largest and most concentrated group of rock paintings in Africa south of the Sahara, and is outstanding both in quality and diversity of subject,” Unesco says.

J is for Jukskei

A game in which the player throws a wooden pin – known in Afrikaans as a skei – at a peg in the ground, jukskei is as South African as you get. The game is said to date back to 1734, and grew out of bored transport riders passing the time by plant a stick in the ground and see who could hit it from a distance with one of the pins from the oxen yokes.

Out of this developed a complicated game of skill, still played by hundreds of South Africans today. During the apartheid era the game was closely associated with the cultural identity drive of the government and actively revived and encouraged by Afrikaner nationalists – doing the game more harm than good in the long term.

In 2001 South Africa’s new government launched the Indigenous Games Project, which identified jukskei as one of seven indigenous games that should be encouraged and developed.

K is for Kwaito

As the fog of apartheid clears, South African youth culture is finding its own voice in a style of music known as kwaito and spawning a new – and profitable – industry.

Summarising the state of the kwaito industry is like trying to condense the history of US hip hop music into a few pages. Some broad brushstrokes will serve as an introduction, but to fully appreciate kwaito, you’ve got to hear it for yourself.

Like hip hop, kwaito is not just music. It is an expression and a validation of a way of life – the way South Africans dress, talk and dance. It is a street style as lifestyle, where the music reflects life in the townships, much the same way hip hop mimics life in the US ghetto.

Just as many of the influences on hip hop come from the streets of New York and California, kwaito is known as the musical voice of young, black, urban South Africa. It’s a mixture of all that 1990s South African youth grew up on: SA disco, hip hop, R&B, Ragga, and a heavy, heavy dose of American and British house music.

L is for Literature

Thomas Pringle, Rider Haggard and Olive Schreiner , Wilbur Smith, JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Bessie Head, Athol Fugard, Credo Mutwa, Sol Plaatjie, NP van Wyk Louw, Andre Brink, Etienne Leroux, C.Louis Leipoldt, Can Themba, Breyten Breytenbach, Alan Paton, Eugene Marais and Herman Charles Bosman all wrote from these shores.

South Africa has produced two Nobel literature laureates: JM Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer. The country has had a rich history of literary output. Until relatively recently, realism dominated the production of fiction – perhaps because authors felt an overriding concern to capture the country’s turbulent history and the experiences of its people.

Fiction has been written in all of South Africa’s 11 official languages – with a large body of work in Afrikaans, in particular. Many of the first black authors were missionary-educated, and the majority wrote in either English or Afrikaans. One of the first novels by a black author in an African language was Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi, written in 1930.

M is for Mbube

In 1939 a tall, shy Zulu migrant worker named Solomon Linda stepped up to the microphone and produced a three-chord song with lyrics something like “Lion! Ha! You’re a lion!”, inspired by boyhood memories of chasing lions stalking the family cattle. The song was called Mbube, Zulu for “lion”.

It’s estimated that Linda received a total of 10 shillings for the song. Yet the tune went on to become Pete Seeger’s runaway hit Wimoweh, then the Tokens’ The Lion Sleeps Tonight, on to at least 160 covers, before ending up in the voices of Timon and Pumbaa, the meerkat and warthog characters in Disney’s classic movie and Broadway hit The Lion King.

Along the way, it is said to have earned some US$15-million (R90-million) in royalties – but not for Linda. The musician died in 1962 with less than R100 in his bank account. His widow couldn’t afford a headstone for his grave.

In February 2006, Linda’s legacy finally received some justice. After a six-year battle his daughters, who had claimed almost R10-million from copyright holder Abilene Music, settled their dispute for an undisclosed sum.

N is for Nguni Cattle

So you think a cow is a cow is a cow? Think again. South Africa’s indigenous Nguni cattle, long the mainstay of traditional Zulu culture, are possibly the most beautiful cattle in the world, with their variously patterned and multicoloured hides everywhere in demand.

For hundreds of years, the well-being of the herds and the Zulu people have been so closely connected that cattle have become a part of the people’s spiritual and aesthetic lives. This has given rise to a poetic and complex naming practice.

The fine and subtle nuance of the isiZulu language captures the delicate interrelationship between cattle terminology and the natural world, where the colour and pattern of a hide or the shape of a pair of horns is linked to images in nature.

O is for Owl House

In the remote Karoo village of Nieu Bethesda is a fascinating world of sculpture in concrete and glass, fantastic figures and mythical beasts set around a house decorated with luminous paint and multicoloured panes of glass.

This is the Owl House, created by the reclusive Helen Martins and her labourer Koos Malgas in the 1940s and now regarded as a masterpiece of visionary art.

In her late forties Martins found herself divorced and alone, her parents dead, and back in the tiny town in which she grew up. The Owl House was her attempt to bring light, life and colour into her lonely grey world, and soon became a major obsession.

P is for Palaeontology

Known in South Africa as the Cradle of Humankind, the region of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and environs has one of the world’s richest concentrations of hominid fossils, evidence of human evolution over the last 3.5-million years.

Found in the provinces of Gauteng and North West, the fossil sites cover an area of 47 000 hectares. The remains of ancient forms of animals, plants and hominids – our early ancestors and their relatives – are captured in a bed of dolomite deposited 2.5-billion years ago. Although other sites in south and east Africa have similar remains, the Cradle has produced more than 950 hominid fossil specimens.

Sites in the area supply crucial information about members of one of the oldest hominids, the australopithecines – two-footed, small-brained primates that appeared about 5-million years ago.

Q is for Quagga

Extinction is forever – or is it? On 12 August 1883 the last living quagga died at the Amsterdam zoo, and the world believed this unusual type of zebra had gone the way of the dodo.

The quagga lived in the Karoo and southern Free State, unlike regular zebras, was striped on the front half of its body only, coloured a creamy light brown on its upper parts and whitish on its belly and legs.

For the last 20 years a team of South Africans have been working to bring the beast back from the dead, with the third generation of specially bred foals now being born.

R is for Robot

South African English is both rich and peculiar. Here, cars stop at robots, not traffic lights. A pickup truck is a bakkie, sneakers are takkies, a hangover is a babbelas, and people greet each other with a heita or howzit.

Eish! expresses surprise, frustration or outrage, and a juicy piece of gossip is likely to be greeted with a drawn-out see-ree-ous!. An particularly handy word is sharp (often doubled up for effect as sharp-sharp!), used as a greeting, a farewell, for agreement or just to express enthusiasm.

Voetsek! means go away right now – or else – and a bliksem is what will happen to you if you don’t voetsek. Those who won’t voetsek and aren’t scared of a bliksem are known to skrik vir niks – unless they’re simply spookgerook.

S is for Shuttleworth

With an appropriate name, South African internet entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth used the millions he earned selling his company in his late twenties to become the first African in space. Joining a Russian crew on the International Space Station in 2002, SA’s Afronaut has gone on to become a major philanthropist, setting up the Mark Shuttleworth Foundation to promote science education and open-source software.

Shuttleworth’s Go Open Source campaign aims to create awareness, educate and provide access to the software – which is created by volunteers and free for anyone to download, use and modify. Software developed by Shuttleworth companies includes Ubuntu, a leading open-source operating system used, among others, by Google.

T is for Tsotsi

Tsotsi is the first South African film to win an Oscar, and has put the country’s movie industry firmly in the spotlight – and vindicated the government’s multimillion-rand strategy to increase the volume of local films and market South Africa as a film-making country.

Based on acclaimed playwright Athol Fugard’s only novel, Tsotsi – the word means “thug” or “hoodlum” – tells the story of a violent young street criminal who finds redemption after he inadvertently abducts a baby during a car hijacking.

The film cost $5-million to make and was filmed on location in Kliptown in Soweto, Gauteng. Written and directed by Gavin Hood, it stars Presley Chweneyagae, Terry Pheto, Zola, Kenneth Nkosi, Mothusi Magano and Zenzo Ngqobe.

U is for Unesco World Heritage

Did you know that Table Mountain National Park has more plant species in its 22 000 hectares than the British Isles or New Zealand? Or that the Drakensberg has both the highest mountain range in Africa south of Kilimanjaro and the continent’s richest concentration of rock art?

South Africa is home to seven Unesco World Heritage sites, places of “outstanding value to humanity”.

Natural heritage sites are the St Lucia wetlands, the Cape Floral Region and the Vredefort Dome meteor impact site. Cultural heritage includes the archaeological site of Mapungubwe, and Robben Island, for centuries a jail for political prisoners – including Nelson Mandela.

The Drakensberg mountain range, with its dramatic scenery and rich store of rock art, is a mixed natural and cultural World Heritage site.

V is for Villages

South African cultural villages allow tourists to experience first-hand the traditional ways of life of South Africa’s people, from the Basotho Cultural Village in the Free State, the Shakaland Zulu village in KwaZulu Natal, the Shangana Cultural Village and South Ndebele Open-Air Museum in Mpumalanga, and the Lesedi Cultural Village in Gauteng. Visitors get to eat traditional food, be entertained by traditional dance and music, and sleep in authentic dwellings. And the villages are more than a unique holiday experience: owned and run by local communities, they help uplift the often marginalised communities of rural areas.

W is for Wine

The vineyards of the Western Cape have been producing wine since the 17th century, with perhaps the most famous estate, Groot Constantia, established in 1685. Members of the British royal house, Napoleon Bonaparte, Louis Philippe of France, Frederick II of Prussia, the Lords Seventeen of the VOC, governors, admirals and captains coveted the Constantia label and treated their special guests to it.

South Africa now has 100 200 hectares under vines for wine production, with the annual harvest some 600-million litres. The country produces 3,1% of the world’s wine and ranks as number nine in overall volume production.

The Winelands are set in magnificent Cape mountain scenery, with estates offering wine tastings, restaurants and accommodation. Some of the world’s top eateries are to be found in the region.

Y is for Yum

Two dances of the sea, four guises of salmon, iced peanut butter and kassler soup, chocolate risotto . yum, yum and yum again. And these are just the starters.

Yum restaurant in Johannesburg has developed a new and funky South African cuisine, and was rewarded with an Eat Out Johnnie Walker Restaurant of the Year award in 2005.

Yum has been in the top 10 restaurant list five times before. Owner and head chef Mario de Angeli (33) has no formal training, yet was named chef of the year in 2003.

He describes Yum’s menu as “new South African cuisine, our interpretation of global food from South Africa – world food by South African people”.

Z is for Zulu

The Zulu people are South Africa’s largest population group, with isiZulu the most common home language. They also have the country’s largest monarchy, headed by King Goodwill Zwelathini, and a rich and enduring culture going back centuries. Shaka, who ruled the Zulu in the 19th century, is possibly their most famous leader, an almost mythical figure and the stuff of legend – not to mention a fair amount of colonial fabrication.

In the 19th century, the Zulu nation took on the British Empire and, armed only with spears, won stunning victories before succumbing to the relentless might of the empire. The war was the subject of the 1964 movie Zulu, starring Michael Caine. The nation has also given its name to a revered New Orleans social club: the 100-year-old Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club.

Source: South Africa History Online, Wikipedia, News24

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